spring valley vineyard

Thursday, October 22, 2009

My home in Waitsburg is just 16 miles north of Walla Walla, yet it feels like a different world. It’s in the Touchet (TWO-shee) valley, not the Walla Walla valley, and it’s wheat country, not wine country. The closest vineyard is six miles south as the crow flies, and belongs to the Corkrum/Derby family, who have farmed wheat at their Spring Valley ranch for over a century.

In 1993 they planted two acres of merlot, a successful experiment which quickly grew to include 40+ acres of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petit verdot, malbec and syrah. Almost immediately Spring Valley grapes were in demand, going to Cadence, Walla Walla Vintners, Reininger and Tamarack among others. Sparked by the interest being shown, an estate winery was launched, with the introduction of a merlot-dominated Bordeaux blend named Uriah in honor of Shari Corkrum Derby’s grandfather, whose photograph is on the label.

For most of the past decade Spring Valley has also produced a cab-dominated Bordeaux blend (a complement to Uriah) called Frederick; a pure cabernet named Derby, a Nina Lee syrah and a Muleskinner merlot. All are named for family pioneers, who are pictured on the labels.

Long before I moved to Waitsburg and visited the winery, I tasted something unique and particular in these wines. They seem to have identified a regional terroir that does not exist elsewhere in the Walla Walla valley. Intense, almost syrupy berry flavors are augmented by streaks of herb, grass, leaf and bark — grace notes if you will — that characterize this unique site. The fruit is ripened to fairly high alcohol levels, and buoyed with natural acids. No additions (other than yeast) are ever used, and the wines are never watered back.

Tragedy struck Spring Valley late in 2004, when winemaker Devin Derby died following a one-car accident. It ultimately led to the sale of the brand, though not the vineyard, to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Ste. Michelle has retained assistant winemaker Serge Laville, and dramatically expanded the vineyard plantings.

This year, the 35-acre Steep Hill vineyard, and 33-acre Cat vineyard, brought in their first grapes. At 1800 feet, the latter may be the highest producing site in Walla Walla county.

On a recent visit to the winery I tasted through the full lineup of six wines (a Katherine Corkrum cabernet franc is the most recent addition). Though I had previously tasted all of them, on this occasion, they really seemed to shine. The high alcohol levels (all topping 15%) did not interfere with the complexity, or obliterate the nuances. The fruit (mostly 2006, except for the franc, which was 2007) was ripe and sweet, the new oak nicely integrated. All are priced at $50, and, except for the Uriah, produced in very limited case quantities. In the current economic climate, these may come across as pricey, but placed in a global context, they are excellent values. And in the context of Walla Walla wines, they are irresistible – and irreplaceable.



Tom (Seattle) said...

Hi Paul,

When I first visited the farm and tasted spring valley starting with the 2001 vintage, I had high hopes. The wines were not terribly complex, and a little heavy handed with the oak, but I was convinced looking at the location and the passion behind the wine good things were coming.

Over the years though, the wines didn't improve and I began to form a theory. One day while tasting, I asked Serge what his thoughts were on blending and barrel management. I asked him how he chose the barrels that made it in to a particular wine, and what happened to the barrels that didn't measure up.

To my surprise, he answered all the wine was used. There is no "red table wine" for lesser barrels. Instead, if it came from the property and was a Merlot, for example, it was going in to the Muleskinner or Uriah or something.

I firmly believe any winery who plans on charging $50+ for wine needs to start off with a plan for sorting wine.

What do you think? Is this a crazy theory and I'm way off base, or do you also believe to make the best wines you need to be selective and have a process in place for dealing with barrels that don't measure up?

Wawineman said...

I tried 'Uriah' and it wasn't worth the $40+. I gave away the 2004 version due to its high alcohol content (over 15.5%). Will you send a message to all Washington winemakers that wines over 15% are a sign of "Cali-wannabe" and, with few exceptions ('Royal City' and Quilceda Creek, so far), I ,as a paying consumer, am no longer favoring these high-alki bombs. I may as well go for the Thunderbird...it's a lot cheaper.
As much as I feel for the tragedy with the Corkrum/Derby family, I do not drink wine to get drunk. And, for me, I missed the "terroir" completely with this wine. Control the heat, please!

PaulG said...

I have been critical of SV (especially that '04 vintage) for the high alcohol. I too am not happy about wines over 14.5 (let alone 15.5)%

But the winemaking decisions made by Devin Derby are now fixed in stone – Serge Laville is under strict marching orders not to make changes. Part of that involves truly non-interventionalist winemaking. No additions of anything - including water - other than yeasts. That, plus the unique vineyard location, does provide some rationale for the high brix/high alcohol wines. But I too wish they'd pick a little sooner, take the herbal flavors that result, and lower the alcohol levels. As for doing a barrel selection - I think that will happen now that all these new vineyards are coming into production.

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